In less than 24-hours after what has been identified to be one of the largest-scale shootings in United States history, details and images of the tragedy in Las Vegas have consumed the media. These details, images and sounds have also likely consumed the screens of your children’s electronic devices. The attempt to find a delicate balance between the wish to protect children from such undesirable aspects of reality, and the desire to prepare them to handle the complexity of adult life, creates a dilemma for parents.
Research has indicated that contact with such events that occur through the media may impact children’s emotional functioning, including an increase in fear reactions (especially in younger children), anger, frustration, helplessness and despair. Additionally, viewing and hearing such content impacts the way children view the world- this is called a schema. Schemas are developed from information provided by life experiences and help inform an individual about what to expect when certain situations happen. When children view content, or hear messages about violent events such as what occurred in Las Vegas, they interpret it and give meaning to it; and, without proper adult guidance and supervision, can render children vulnerable to creating assumptions and having fears that influence how they perceive, process, remember and relate to information into their adult lives.
When it comes to parents imposing restrictions on social media, internet, television, etc., most of the findings in this area suggest that while some restrictions can be easily monitored, others, particularly related to parents attempting to restrict content, have been deemed to be relatively ineffective. Placing parameters on your children’s social media, internet and television usage should not be very different from how you decide to place parameters in other dimensions of your children’s lives. For example, studies suggest that parents who employ authoritative parenting styles (high in demandingness and responsiveness) has the most positive outcomes for children. Parents who employ this type of parenting style are measured and consistent in discipline, have clear cut standards for their children, and are very firm about enforcing them. However, they allow their children autonomy within the limits, are not intrusive or restrictive, and are able to engage in calm conversation and reasoning with their children. Moreover, they are responsive to their children’s needs and communicate openly with them.
There is some evidence to suggest that the authoritative parenting style toward technologies such as social media and television, offers a foundation for families to integrate technology in their own constructive manner; specifically, when it comes to understanding children and providing an opportunity for parents to have a positive influence on their children. Suggestions for employing this type of attitude and parenting style for social media in this current situation include monitoring children’s activities based on clear rules; being informed of the content of the media children are exposed, to and talk about it with them regularly. Also, serve as a role-model when it comes to usage and content of social media; basically, engage in behavior you prefer your children to engage in.
Watching television or social media together, rather than in isolation, can be beneficial. Often, media functions as the first, and sometimes the only encounter children have with unfamiliar social situations. In viewing media together, parents help their children to understand the medium of media as well as its content, encourage them to internalize messages selectively and critically, intervene immediately when children are exposed to content which is objectionable in their opinion, and handle emotional reactions of children. Younger children may express their fear not only while viewing, but also in real-life situations that are associated with the televised scene.
When speaking with your children about the Las Vegas tragedy, be sure to first come from a place of inquiry and understanding rather than a place of explanation. Because media functions as the first encounter children have with unfamiliar social situations, it is unclear what meaning children have assigned to them, or how they have applied it to their own lives and safety. Learning the perceptions children have attributed with such events is important so parents can accurately address and dispel any misconceptions or fears children have constructed. For example, some children may now associate all concerts with mass-shootings. It is important in these contexts that parents validate their children’s worries, and help show that not all concerts are ridden with shootings. Be sure to be as present with your children as much as possible throughout their expression of fear, worry and distress; provide comfort non-verbally through sitting near them or holding their hand, and validate and normalize their feelings. Even if this event did not occur close to where you live, consider how the intensity of live news coverage presents dangers as immediate and relevant, and how this likely impacts the perception your children have of the danger being close to home.
Overall, when speaking with your children, encourage them to ask questions about the event, and answer their questions as honestly as you can. Share your own feelings and emotions without being an alarmist, as it is important to show that is normal and acceptable to experience emotions associated with a distressing event. Be confident with children that you are safe, and they are safe, and reassure your children without minimizing their concerns. When it comes to helping children cope with this type of distressing event, talking about thoughts and feelings should be encouraged. Keeping regular routines is also important, as well as engaging in family-oriented activities. In situations like this, children may be inclined to want to help or honor the individuals affected by this tragedy. Brainstorming ideas such as creating a go-fund-me page, planting a tree, releasing balloons, or other activities may also effectively assist in coping. As parents, the influence and impact this can have on your children’s emotional health and the way they view the world can be guided as much as possible by you.